Writer’s note: The second paragraph of this article (just below the first image) contains a basic outline of the show’s premise. There are no spoilers that weren’t already inferred in the show’s own trailer. However, if you want to completely avoid potential spoilers, skip over the second paragraph.
The biographical drama is one of the most common genres in film and television. It’s a cliché to say ‘truth is stranger than fiction’, but it must be true because many biographies are endlessly fascinating. Even so, there’s always questions surrounding the validity of these supposed ‘true stories’, as there are definitely many things we can’t know for sure. This gets particularly complicated when a story is based off things still within memory, or are about people who are still alive. In these cases, it’s hard for filmmakers to take creative licence, as the real people will most likely object to their cinematic depiction. At what point is it okay to take liberties, and at what point does it cross a line? Peter Morgan’s The Crown (2016 – Current), has always been at the centre of this discussion, but Season 4 takes the argument to new heights.
For those unaware of the Netflix hit, The Crown tracks the lives of the English Royal family and the political climate they inhabit. Season 1 and 2 was set between 1947 to 1964, covering the rise of Queen Elizabeth II and her husband Prince Phillip. Season 3 depicts events from 1964 to 1977, the years in which Prince Charles and the other children came of age. Season 4 picks things up right when things got particularly hairy. Namely, the doomed marriage of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer, and the controversial reign of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Given how culturally influential these developments were, the show has gained more attention than ever before, as many critics are coming out of the woodwork to comment on the accuracy (or lack thereof).
This isn’t a documentary, nor does it claim to be ‘based on true events’. Therefore, you shouldn’t take the show as historical fact. While the main storylines and big events are all based in truth, the dramatic encounters behind closed doors are purely the creation of show runner Peter Morgan. However, it should be noted the fictionalisation is about as accurate as historical revisionism generally gets. Morgan and the writing team may not know exactly what was said or done in the Palace’s private rooms, but they have come up with fairly educated guesses based on the facts. In this instance, the fictional elements are arguably harmless because they fill in the blanks to the things we do know for sure. There are moments where it takes larger fictional leaps than previous seasons, but for the most part the fictionalisation remains narratively satisfying.
Much of the criticism seems to come from loyalists to the Royal family or even the Royal family itself. This makes sense considering Season 4 shows them in a more unflattering light than ever before. Additionally, this is part of what makes The Crown such a rich viewing experience, as the empowering positives and oppressive negatives of the Monarchy are unpacked in equal measure. The 1970s – 1980s was a time of significant cultural modernisation, meaning the relevance of an old-fashioned sovereign was diminishing. With that in mind, Morgan takes full advantage of the Diana/Charles tragedy, using it as the perfect venue for the battle between an archaic world and a modern world. The family once looked like the last vestige of important traditions, but has now evolved into an example of oppression. Season 4 brings out the worst in its characters, and thus the drama has never been more engaging.
It’s not easy to streamline years worth of story into a cohesive narrative, yet The Crown has often been a prime example of how to do it right. Previous seasons spectacularly juggled its many story arcs, usually isolating each noteworthy event to a single episode. While each episode bled into the next, they never felt like complete stories when viewed together. Not that it was ever a bad thing, as the episodes were always captivating, held your attention and added layers of character depth. While Season 4 continues this trend, Morgan has now managed to deliver a series of episodes which feel like chapters of a larger epic story. More so than ever, The Crown takes the audience on an emotional journey, propelling us forward like some kind of dramatic thriller. For the first time in the show’s history, we sit in anticipation for the next episode, dying to see what happens next.
This is especially impressive considering the show maintains its sense of perspective. In most shows, there are characters you like and characters you don’t like, but The Crown isn’t so black and white. In one chapter, Queen Elizabeth would be the hero and Princess Margaret the villain, only to then switch that dynamic around next time. This may seem like no big deal as TV shows often change the audience’s sympathy, but it’s uncommon to still maintain previously held sympathy. Morgan makes us like the characters, then hate them, and like them again effortlessly. It never feels forced and the characters never feel contradicted by their contradictory actions. These are fully realised people with a believable mix of likeable and dislikable qualities.
The strength of the storytelling craft is further complimented by the outstanding cast, all of whom arguably turn in their best work. Olivia Coleman and Tobias Menzies have never been better as Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip, embodying a fascinating duality between power and powerlessness. Gillian Anderson is a revelation as Margaret Thatcher, eclipsing even Meryl Streep’s version of the character. Josh O’Connor continues to shine as Prince Charles, juggling all the qualities of an oppressed boy and a spoiled brat without breaking a sweat. The standout is of course Emma Corrin as Diana, who is as wonderfully infectious as the real Diana. Most importantly, she manifests this season’s most potent theme: Is it a sign of strength or weakness to turn a blind eye?
The Crown will only get more controversial the closer we get to Diana’s untimely passing. It was a moment that greatly affected many people, so it’s inevitable that the forthcoming seasons will be even more hotly debated. However, if this season is any indication, Peter Morgan and his team will surely deliver many more amazing hours of TV. The Crown is captivating, complex, respectful and emotionally honest (even when it lies).
Best way to watch it: With your Mum who loved Diana.